I am not an expert on the Caucasus but I play one on my blog.
Actually, even though the above is true, I am blessed with two gifts that allow me to comment on just about any earth shaking crisis that blows up. First, I can read. This allows me the luxury of being able to write intelligently on just about anything that piques my curiosity. Secondly – a and more importantly – I can read a map. This is really cool because in any military confrontation like this, both sides are looking at pretty much the same map you are. No need to guess what sources they are using for information. Hence, both Vladamir Putin and President Saakashvili of Georgia are looking at the map, looking at troop deployments, looking at the Russian advance, and are making their decisions based on how those little flags are being maneuvered around.
And in Saakashvili’s case, he is starting to realize that using his military to affect the re-unification with South Ossetia and Abkhazia – the two breakaway Georgian provinces at the heart of the conflict – was a huge mistake.
Did Saakashvili believe that by provoking Russia in South Ossetia that NATO would come to his aid and solve his reunification problems for him? At the very least, he miscalculated Putin’s overwhelming response. As I write this, Russian troops are moving out of South Ossetia into Georgia proper in what can only be called an invasion. Their strategic goals are several and complex but elegantly constructed.
Follow along with the map and look inside the mind of Putin: (HT: Belmont Club)
Russian troops seem to be aiming for the town of Gori which sits astride vital highway and rail links to the capitol Tiblisi. If the Russians can take Gori, they essentially have split Georgia in two with both break away provinces safe and secure in Moscow’s hands. The Georgians know this which is why they will likely defend Gori with everything they have.
Meanwhile, the Russians have also begun an attack out of Abkhazia apparently aimed at Georgia’s vital back door – seaports on the Black Sea where the country receives about 85% of its wheat and also is the hub of its lucrative oil and gas industry.
The Georgians have evidently completely evacuated South Ossetia, suffering a humiliating defeat in Tskhinvali. Richard Fernandez explains the significance:
The most important development is that the Georgians have been driven from Tskhinvali, though it is not clear whether they have given up all positions on the surrounding high ground. Tskhinvali is the “cork in the bottle” leading from the Caucasus passes to the long plain that runs west to east across Georgia. Sky News now says the Georgians are falling back on Gori, which is the key to keeping Georgia intact. If Gori falls, Georgia will be cut in half with Tbilisi to the east and the Black Sea ports to the West. On the map at least, the battle for Gori will be the battle for Georgia.
Whether or not the Russians move on Gori depends on Moscow and international power politics. In my opinion, while it may take a while for the Russians to bring up enough force through their tenuous road link back across the Caucasus, they will eventually be able to marshal enough force to take the Georgian positions. The clock is ticking. Reuters reports the Georgians saying they will fight for positions around Gori.
Gori then is not only the key to Georgia, it will be a signpost as to just what Russian intentions in this conflict are. The New York Times is reporting that Russia is seeking nothing less than regime change in Georgia:
Russia expanded its attacks on Georgia on Sunday, moving tanks and troops through the separatist enclave of South Ossetia and advancing toward the city of Gori in central Georgia, in its first direct assault on a Georgian city with ground forces during three days of heavy fighting, Georgian officials said.
The maneuver — along with bombing of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi — seemed to suggest that Russia’s aims in the conflict had gone beyond securing the pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to weakening the armed forces of Georgia, a former Soviet republic and an ally of the United States whose Western leanings have long irritated the Kremlin.
Russia’s moves, which came after Georgia offered a cease-fire and said it had pulled its troops out of South Ossetia, caused widespread international alarm and anger and set the stage for an intense diplomatic confrontation with the United States.
Two senior Western officials said that it was unclear whether Russia intended a full invasion of Georgia, but that its aims could go as far as destroying its armed forces or overthrowing Georgia’s pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
“They seem to have gone beyond the logical stopping point,” one senior Western diplomat said, speaking anonymously under normal diplomatic protocol.
And yes children, we are powerless to stop it.
Russia has Georgia by the short hairs and can thumb its nose at the international community. Putin will prove the impotence of the United Nations once again (as if it matters to the legions of idiot enablers who still think the UN a place where grown ups solve the world’s problems) and, if he really wants to stick it to us, will engineer the overthrow of the pro western, pro-American Saakashvili and replace him with a toady. That would be as big a humiliation for the United States as was ever planned by the American left in Iraq.
Think of it; our closest and most valued ally in a region of the world that not only is strategically vital due to its oil and gas reserves but also serves as the backdoor to the Persian Gulf and Iran being summarily dismissed by Putin as if he were a grocery store clerk caught stealing a candy bar. What enormous satisfaction for Putin who has been chafing at the bit to assert Russian dominance in the region once again. Watching our impotent response to events in Georgia are other states in the Caucasus as well including the Ukraine which has its own issues with Moscow and could very well be next on Putin’s list.
Are we making too much of this incursion by the Russians?
This war did not begin because of a miscalculation by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. It is a war that Moscow has been attempting to provoke for some time. The man who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century” has reestablished a virtual czarist rule in Russia and is trying to restore the country to its once-dominant role in Eurasia and the world. Armed with wealth from oil and gas; holding a near-monopoly over the energy supply to Europe; with a million soldiers, thousands of nuclear warheads and the world’s third-largest military budget, Vladimir Putin believes that now is the time to make his move.
Georgia’s unhappy fate is that it borders a new geopolitical fault line that runs along the western and southwestern frontiers of Russia. From the Baltics in the north through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Caucasus and Central Asia, a geopolitical power struggle has emerged between a resurgent and revanchist Russia on one side and the European Union and the United States on the other.
Putin’s aggression against Georgia should not be traced only to its NATO aspirations or his pique at Kosovo’s independence. It is primarily a response to the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia in 2003 and 2004, when pro-Western governments replaced pro-Russian ones. What the West celebrated as a flowering of democracy the autocratic Putin saw as geopolitical and ideological encirclement.
Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia’s attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even—though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities—the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives. Yes, we will continue to have globalization, economic interdependence, the European Union and other efforts to build a more perfect international order. But these will compete with and at times be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of international life that have endured since time immemorial. The next president had better be ready.
That’s from the neo-con right – a not unexpected analysis and perhaps Kagan is being overly dramatic by comparing August 8 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But there is absolutely no doubt that a fundamental change has been wrought by this Russian action – especially if they keep up the attack on Georgia and affect regime change.
From the center-left, Zbigniew Brzezinski from an interview at Huffpo:
Fundamentally at stake is what kind of role Russia will play in the new international system. Unfortunately, Putin is putting Russia on a course that is ominously similar to Stalin’s and Hitler’s in the late 1930s. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has correctly drawn an analogy between Putin’s “justification” for dismembering Georgia—because of the Russians in South Ossetia—to Hitler’s tactics vis a vis Czechoslovakia to “free” the Sudeten Deutsch.
Even more ominous is the analogy of what Putin is doing vis-a-vis Georgia to what Stalin did vis-a-vis Finland: subverting by use of force the sovereignty of a small democratic neighbor. In effect, morally and strategically, Georgia is the Finland of our day
The question the international community now confronts is how to respond to a Russia that engages in the blatant use of force with larger imperial designs in mind: to reintegrate the former Soviet space under the Kremlin’s control and to cut Western access to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia by gaining control over the Baku/ Ceyhan pipeline that runs through Georgia.
In brief, the stakes are very significant. At stake is access to oil as that resource grows ever more scarce and expensive and how a major power conducts itself in our newly interdependent world, conduct that should be based on accommodation and consensus, not on brute force.
If Georgia is subverted, not only will the West be cut off from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. We can logically anticipate that Putin, if not resisted, will use the same tactics toward the Ukraine. Putin has already made public threats against Ukraine.
Bush can publicly jawbone and try and embarrass Putin but that is the extent of what the US is capable of doing in stopping Russia from doing whatever it wishes. The Russian strongman (who has made the presidency of Dmitri Medvedev a joke by assuming control of the military and foreign policy of Russia – portfolios that are supposed to belong to the president) cares little for international opinion although foreign investment in Russia could be drastically curtailed if he goes to far and the US and Western Europe get their way. Kicking Russia out of the G-8 would be another “punishment” that Putin would sneer at.
What we need to do is elect Barack Obama president. He can go to Moscow and sing his song of hope and change, thus soothing the savage heart that beats in Putin’s chest. No doubt Putin will take one look at Obama and realize the error of his ways and become a good citizen of the world – just like Obama. At least, this will be the line from the left. Liberals are already telling us that this is all George Bush’s fault, that we never should have recognized the independence of Kosovo, that we never should have supported Saakashvili in his efforts to remain independent of Moscow, that we never should have trained the Georgian military so that they could deploy to Iraq and resist possible aggression from Russia, that we shouldn’t have 1000 advisors in Georgia helping with everything from democracy building to re-ordering the Georgian military establishment.
In short, when it comes to helping an ally, the left’s response is “Let ‘em hang.”
We were in Georgia for reasons so painfully obvious that even the romper room set on the left should be able to understand it. And we weren’t “going it alone” either. The effort to help Georgia was multi-lateral with advisors from NATO in country as well. If we can’t aid countries that ask for our assistance, that support our foreign policy objectives, and whose leadership and people reach out to us in friendship and comity then who the hell are we supposed to help?
Pardon me for my detour into liberal bashing but I am sick and tired of these vultures emerging when anything untoward happens in the world and blaming the crisis and/or the result on Bush. It is madness. The president may have proved his incompetence and stupidity in any number of areas but to blame all the evil of the world on him and America is ludicrous and shows a decided unseriousness by those on the left who insist on engaging in this ridiculous parlor game.
Bush could sneeze in Beijing and a typhoon that hits Bangladesh is his fault according to this kind of “logic.” Our support and assistance to Georgia and other nations in the Caucasus is ordered by itself and self-evidently in our vital interest. We should make no apologies for our Georgian policy. Anyone who thinks Putin needed our closeness to Saakashvili as an excuse to carry out the kind of aggression he is engaged in now – aggression which has gone far beyond any reasonable response to Georgian attacks on South Ossetia – hasn’t been following Putin’s career or the Russian prime minister’s single minded lust for power and prestige.
All we can do is pick up the pieces after this is over. The only sure thing is that Moscow will be in a much stronger position and we, a much weaker one.